Remembrance of the Pathfinder: Professor Bhubaneshwar Behera

Remembrance of the Pathfinder: Professor Bhubaneshwar Behera

Proud is the mother who bore a son like him. Blessed is the land where he resided. For there are few who transcend the level of humans and are deemed as gods. The effervescent personality that inspired many may not dwell amongst us today, but the legacy left by him is something that India cannot forget.

Professor Bhubaneshwar Behera was the founder Principal of REC, Rourkela (now christened as NIT, Rourkela). Back in 1961, the college was but a mere larvae awaiting metamorphosis, with the classes being held at the ITI building and students residing in the ITI hostels at Panposh. But, the institution transformed into a place of harmony under his administration and students of various religions and regions worked under his tutelage for the sake of a better future.

Born on 1st January 1916, in the quaint village of Kashibahal pertaining to the poverty stricken Kalahandi district, the infant of Shrimati Manopriya Devi and Shri Laxman Prasad Behera, was christened ‘Bhubaneshwar’. After completing his elementary schooling from the Village school and Matriculation from the district school, he pursued a course of B.Sc. Physics in Raven Shaw University, following which he studied Civil Engineering at Patna Engineering College. There is an interesting anecdote showcasing his patriotism and courage that occurred in his engineering days. During his tenure at Patna, Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement. Drenched in the colours of the Tricolour, Bhubaneshwar Behera sabotaged the Union Jack (The flag of UK) from Patna high court and tried to escape from the scene when armed militants were engaged in his pursuit. As the chase ensued, he swam across Ganga and outwitted his pursuers, much to their displeasure.

After graduating with first class honours in the year 1943, he started working in Orissa Works Department followed by Jog Hydro Power Projects in the state of Mysore. He then returned to Kalahandi and hypothesised about the possibility of constructing a Hydro Power project and empowering the state. After gaining acclaim all over for his work, he was sent to the State University of Iowa for his Masters in Hydraulics and Fluid Mechanics. After the unification of the state, he was an active proponent of the Hirakud Dam Project. But his interest in job dwindled and he developed an inclination towards teaching and inspiring young minds. This opened a new chapter in his life, the prologue of which was his posting at University College of Engineering, Burla in 1956 as a lecturer. In 1961, he was instated as the principal of the college. However, his tenure was short lived. Biju Pattnaik, the flamboyant Chief Minister of Orissa established REC, Rourkela in 1961, despite the opposition of the Central Government. He recognised the potential of Prof. Bhubaneshwar Behera and made him the first principal of REC. And so the chapter of NIT-R opened which would produce a long and enduring history of excellence and technological advancement.

After taking up the mantle of Principal, Prof. Bhubaneshwar Behera sought to expand the infrastructure of REC so that it could emerge from the shadows of the modest ITI building. He acquired 670 acres of land for that purpose and developed many infrastructural faculties to support the students’ need. He was the proud sculptor of the institution we see today, having laid a foundation of a true mega structure. He brought the college to a stage where infrastructure started developing at a faster pace. He ensured that the campus was protected like a fortress from all adversities.

During the Hindu-Muslim communal riot of 1964, Prof. Behera issued the NCC cadets with guns and bolstered the security by a notch.

“The riot caused casualties amounting to nearly 200, but the radical of actions of Prof. Behera led to complete safety of the REC family. Not a single soul from REC was harmed during the whole incident.”

The Brigadier General of NCC confronted him, demanding an explanation for the whole incident, but Prof. Behera promptly requested him to evict the NCC system from REC, for the cadets were trained to protect their country and not for the sake of Independence Day parade. This bold move created a global scale uproar, to the extent that it was discussed in a UNO meet and the actions of Prof. Behera were lauded profusely.

As a professor, he commanded absolute faith and devotion in the hearts of his students. When a student was struck by a malady, Prof. Behera used to accompany the student personally to IGH and put a word to its director to take special care of his pupil and visited the student everyday along with his wife, Shrimati Uma Devi. This level of affection pierced even the hearts of hot blooded youngsters around him and they started worshipping him as their Guru and their father. He was struck with an acute case of TB at the start of the REC legacy but pulled through by the prayers and best wishes of his students. On his return to Rourkela from Vellore where he was treated, he was treated to a scene of crowded students euphorically awaiting his return.  The ravages of time might have struck over those days, but the pupils of Prof. Behera still get overwhelmed with nostalgia while narrating instances of his love for them.

When REC was but at a nascent stage, its students became frustrated by the dilapidated condition of the Cinema hall at Rourkela. We engineers sure love our movies. Agitated by this, they formed a mob and vandalised the place. The police got wind of the situation and surmised the involvement of RECians. Prof. Behera confronted the students and they truthfully confessed to their folly. When the police confronted him for an enquiry, he promptly refuted the possibility of any RECian, saying he could vouch for their integrity.

In January 1962, when the students of University College of Engineering, Burla had started filling up the forms for annual examinations, students of REC didn’t receive their application forms. It came to the notice of Prof. Behera and upon further enquiry he found out that REC was not affiliated to Utkal University. And that was the sole reason for the delay of examination forms. Prof. Behera seriously looked into the matter and immediately spoke to Biju Pattnaik regarding this. After interaction with the Vice-chancellor, the problem was soon resolved within a few days. The aforementioned incident reflected that as a person Bhubaneswar Behera was systematic, tactful and a good administrator who easily tackled any kind of harsh situations.

In 1967, there was a proposition for shifting the administration of REC from Utkal University to Sambalpur University. Apprehensive that their degree won’t be recognised by any company, the students decided to revolt for the sake of their future, plunging REC into turmoil. Prof. Behera decided to tackle the problem his own way. Being a practitioner of the Gandhian ideology, he peacefully sat under the famous Banyan tree of the REC campus and decided to go on a fast until the students decided to stop their radical actions and contemplate on their actions cool headedly. Despite of continuous persuasion, he didn’t relent to stopping his protest until his students gave in to his demands. Moved by his tenacity and resilience, the students called off their protest and personally escorted Prof. Behera to their mess, where they all shared a meal together.

He was a promoter of culture. In his time as the principal of REC, students were encouraged to participate in drama, play sports and work towards holistic development. Prof. Behera himself was a tennis enthusiast. Every day, he would come in the students’ outfit of whites with shoes. Students, staffers and everyone would bond over a game of tennis.

After leaving his mark on REC-R, he was appointed as a Vice-Chancellor of Sambalpur University in 1971. It was during this time that he devoted his time completely for his writing endeavours. When he was part of the engineering service, he published a quarterly magazine called ‘Saptarshi’ to promote Odia culture among the youth. In no time, he established himself as a writer of regional importance. His essay book ‘Suna Parikshya’ received the Orissa Sahitya Academy Award. His novel which is sort of his autobiography ‘Gaanra Daaka’ earned him the prestigious Sarala Award. He was praised for his simplistic style of writing replete with humility and conviction.

Sadly, he passed away in 2001, leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of his admirers. Many believe that he was an unsung hero whose contribution to society was forgotten along the pages of history. Our team pays tribute to the first true Guru of NIT-R.

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